A lawyer who works closely with the women of the Downtown Eastside says the city’s new Sister Watch program is simply a “Band-Aid” solution to larger systemic issues.
“We know about the epidemic of violence in this neighbourhood, and this program is really just a reaction to that,” Pivot Legal Society lawyer Katrina Pacey told the Straight in a phone interview.
Mayor Gregor Robertson and police chief Jim Chu unveiled the program on December 6, in part as a response to the death of Ashley Machiskinic, who fell from a window of the Regent Hotel at 160 East Hastings Street on September 15.
The initiative will replace the VPD’s Guardian Project and consist of a tip line, town-hall meetings, a website, a speaker’s bureau, and a reward of up to $10,000 for information about Machiskinic’s death.
Pacey said she’s encouraged by the project and thinks it’s a step in the right direction, but she urges every level of government and policing to think about the role it plays in the vulnerability and marginalization of Downtown Eastside women.
“If they want to prevent violence, the government needs to look at what they should be doing to shift the direction of these women’s lives so that they are safe, have options and choice in terms of how they live their lives,” Pacey said.
She would like to see the women of the Downtown Eastside have access to safe and affordable housing, and she stresses the importance of not criminalizing them for sex work, drug addiction, or homelessness.
“We need them to no longer be criminalized due to the conditions of their lives,” she explained. “If they really want sex workers to feel safe and to be safe, then they need to think about not enforcing the criminal laws that relate to adult prostitution.”
Pacey noted that a recent decision by the Ontario Supreme Court asserted that federal prostitution laws violate sex workers’ right to be safe. Her hope is that both Vancouver and B.C. will look at the decision and “take a sort of pause in terms of enforcement of the laws here”.
As for the Sister Watch program itself, Pacey said the VPD could benefit from enlisting the help of community groups that are trusted and have been at the forefront of the issues for years.